James King Arness (May 26, 1923 - June 3, 2011) was an American actor, best known for portraying Marshal Matt Dillon in the television series Gunsmoke for 20 years. Arness has the distinction of having played the role of Dillon in five separate decades: 1955 to 1975 in the weekly series, then in Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge (1987) and four more made-for-TV Gunsmoke movies in the 1990s. In Europe Arness reached cult status for his role as Zeb Macahan in the western series How the West Was Won. His younger brother was actor Peter Graves.
An urban legend has it that John Wayne was offered the leading role of Matt Dillon in the longtime favorite television show Gunsmoke, but he turned it down, recommending instead James Arness for the role. The only part of this story that is true is that Wayne did indeed recommend Arness for the part. Wayne introduced Arness in a prologue to the first episode of Gunsmoke, in 1955. The Norwegian-German Arness had to dye his naturally blond hair darker for the role. Gunsmoke made Arness world-famous and would run for two decades, becoming the longest running drama series in U.S. television history by the end of its run in 1975. The series' season record was tied only in 2010 with the final season of Law & Order. Unlike the latter show, Gunsmoke featured its lead character in each of its twenty seasons; Gunsmoke also aired 179 more episodes, and was in the top 10 in the ratings for eleven more seasons, for a total of thirteen, including four consecutive seasons at number one.